Following the great success of a young birder roadtrip to Michigan over the summer, I was chomping at the bit to organize another young birder trip. The opportunity presented itself when fellow Pittsburgh young birder Jack Chaillet and I were both free over President’s Day weekend. My nemesis bird, black-backed woodpecker, sat tantalizingly just 7 hours north in Canada’s boreal forest so we set our sights for the Great White North.
As soon as I got off school on Wednesday, we loaded the car and set out. We made a brief stop in northern PA for a Ross’s goose which we dipped upon, but the thought of snow and winter finches drove us ever northwards and we ended up eventually in Amherst, New York where we stayed the night.
The next morning the real birding began. We pulled into Goat Island in Niagara rearing to go and with one target in mind: gulls. A quick drive around the island showed that one side in particular, around the Three Sisters Islands, had a large concentration. We parked the car and commenced scanning. Quickly we picked up a fair number of lesser black-backed gulls with a few Iceland’s and a single glaucous mixed in with the ubiquitous ring-billed and herring. However, the most exciting find was a single Thayer’s gull (with a second Thayer’s candidate)! A lifer for both of us! Perhaps more exciting for Jack who was becoming increasingly obsessed with boosting the trip list, a group of wigeon wandered by, a species we were worried about missing during the trip.
Electrified by the white-winged wonders around us, but with a number of other targets to get that day, we headed for the border and crossed into Canada.
Our first stop across the border was in Burlington at the Burlington Shipping Canal. This is a spot I’ve stopped at during some early trips to Ontario and has proven to be a reliable spot for king eider. However, those large sea ducks hadn’t been reported for a while and we worried that they were no longer there. A couple hours of searching in fact proved us right about the eiders, but the stop was more than worth it anyway, if only because of the long-tailed ducks. These elegant sea ducks congregate in huge numbers at the canal and we were afforded brilliant looks.
By this point it was getting late enough in the day that we were getting anxious to be moving along, so we set our GPS due north and started driving.
However, we couldn’t resist one more birding stop for the day, this time at a spot for snowy owl. Of the number of locales in the area holding snowy owls, our essentially random choice of one proved to have been unknowingly good, for we had two of the majestic arctic birds perched just across the road from one another. A small flock (flurry?) of snow buntings was an added bonus.
That night we stayed in Huntsville, the town adjacent to the famous Algonquin Provincial Park. Our plan was to bird in the park for the next two days, aiming on snagging boreal specialties, and of course black-backed woodpecker. The woodpecker is a bird that had evaded me far too many times before. I had looked for them with no success twice in Ontario, once in Minnesota, and once in Michigan. Every time had involved a huge number of hours spent in the field desperately stalking a bird that would never appear. The most recent attempt, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was particularly frustrating as I and a couple other young birders spent 5 fruitless hours along one road being slowly devoured by horse flies and pursuing every woodpecker drum we encountered, going crazier and crazier with every hairy or sapsucker that fooled us. Understandably, I did not plan on leaving Ontario this time without my much desired nemesis.
The first day netted us some incredible birding. White-winged and red crossbills abounded and we were able to net common redpoll and pine grosbeaks, both uncommon species this year. The flock of up to 100 evening grosbeaks at the visitor center feeder swept the finch for us and incredible looks at boreal chickadee gave us one of our top targets. The unseasonably warm weather which made the birding much easier and more comfortable than it usually is in Algonquin in February was an added (although rather ominous when climate change is kept in mind) bonus.
However, throughout the day, black-backed woodpecker remained elusive, with only the occasional peeled tree hinting at their presence. We went to sleep that night early, planning on awaking early to be out at a bog preferred by the woodpecker at first light. I don’t know what Jack was thinking but I personally planned on searching exclusively for the woodpecker for as long as it took.
We arrived at the bog while the morning was still crisp and still. White-winged crossbills sputtered and chipped in small flocks overhead, ravens croaked occasionally, and a surprise American crow called. However, the main thrill came when we reached the prime stretch of bog and heard, distantly, the drum of a black-backed woodpecker. I froze as the adrenaline began to course, but the bird was too distant to be of much use. As I strained my ears to hear it again, another sound caught my ear. The distinctive, hollow “pik” of a black-backed, much, much closer this time. Just off the road in fact. We walked as fast as we could on the slick, icy road over to where it had called. Sure enough, the woodpecker appeared as if on cue, flying to land on a nearby tree! Success! Nemesis conquered! The adrenaline was by this point through the roof and I excitedly followed the bird as it foraged around the bog until, ultimately, it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.
We happily returned to the car, overjoyed with what we had seen. We had no idea that our day would end up getting even better.
We decided to stop at the visitor center to check the sightings board before going birding again and saw, much to our excitement, that there had been two spruce grouse reported from Spruce Bog not 15 minutes before. We suspected that they had moved on but figured better safe than sorry, so headed out. We could not have been more wrong. When we arrived at the trail, a crowd of maybe 20 photographers were all clustered around one side of the trail, shutters clicked rapidly. We walked over and sure enough, there were two spruce grouse, not more than five feet off the trail!
Our good luck wasn’t over as we were later even able to find a stakeout American marten, a much desired mammal for both of us. These arboreal mustelids often attend garbage cans around campsites in the park and one in particular was extremely reliable around Mew Lake.
Algonquin Park had come through for me once again! This park has never failed to disappoint me and its magnificent scenery, winter stillness, logistic ease of birding, and fantastic wildlife have made it a favourite place of mine to bird. This trip cemented that impression even more; how can you complain about getting a nemesis?
That evening, having gotten all our targets plus some in the park, we left the beautiful boreal forest behind and headed for Ottawa for our last day of birding.
In Ottawa we met up with an old young birder friend of mine, Will von Herff and turned the reigns of the itinerary over to his local knowledge. He brought us first to a location hosting a great grey owl. This northern owl staged a huge irruption into southern Canada this winter and this was one of the many spots in the area from which they were being seen. It turned out to be a reliable spot too, as we picked up the owl within literally 30 seconds of arrival.
Our next stop was for a potential lifer for me, only my third of the trip, grey partridge. Normally scarce and hard to find around Ottawa, a covey had been hanging around a housing development west of the city. Much as with the owl, they turned out to be extremely reliable and the covey was found by Jack, taking shelter in the lee of a house, within 10 minutes.
With all three of my lifer targets for the trip (Thayer’s gull, black-backed woodpecker, and grey partridge) in the bag, I was in a rather good mood as we moved to the next spot, a waterfowling location along the Ottawa River. There we picked up our two targets, Barrow’s goldeneye and a continuing harlequin duck (both lifers for Jack) and were able to enjoy good looks at the ubiquitous common goldeneye.
It was particularly nice to get good looks at the Barrow’s as Ottawa is a good spot to get direct comparison to common goldeneye. The difference in head shape in particular really stands out in direct comparison!
A flock of Bohemian waxwings just over the border in Quebec got us the last of our targets, all before noon(!), and we were able to spend the rest of the day relaxing and just having fun birding around, a nice reprieve after a few hectic days.
The next day we said goodbye to Will and then to Canada in quick succession as we crossed back into the US at the magnificently beautiful Thousand Island Crossing and headed back to Pittsburgh.
In the course of 5 days we had cleaned up Ontario, sweeping all our targets except king eider, and seeing some fantastic birds! Another successful birding trip down.